Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking, 2006.

In Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick writes about the Plymouth Colony from the Pilgrim’s flight from Europe to the end of King Philip’s War. It is mainly a story of how the settler’s and their descendants related to the natives.

It was by no means certain that the Pilgrims would get along with the Indians. They were chiefly concerned with building a community on their religious convictions, strong beliefs they held on to in spite of persecution in England. In the New World, they would do things their way.

Even so, they were surprisingly humble. The hardships they faced in America were enough to humble anyone. They quickly realized their dependence on the sufferance of the native populations. Unwittingly, they had upset the political balance of the Indian tribes.

Massasoit was the leader of a tribe that was weakened by disease and other setbacks. Once one of the leading tribes in the regions, the Pokanokets were in danger of being subdued by their rivals. Massasoit, their sachem, built and alliance with the Pilgrims at Plymouth that kept him in a strong position.

This is only the beginning of the political intrigues that run through the history of the Plymouth colony. Many native leaders and would-be sachems used the English, their technology, and the fear many Indians felt to carve out a place for themselves in the dangerous world of inter-tribal politics.

Against this backdrop, the Pilgrims cultivated allies amongst the Indians. Though their desire for religious purity may caused them to separate themselves from the churches in England may have tended to isolate them, the discipline, self-control, humility, and justice required by their faith made them more palatable to the natives than other European settlers.

Things changed quickly within a couple of generations. The Pilgrims were chiefly interested in their religious community, but their immediate descendants were interested in land and the wealth it brought. This inevitably led to competition for resources. The Indians became resentful and the English shed humility as they gained power.

Massasoit’s grandson, Philip, doesn’t seem like a fighter. In fact, he was generally a runner. Even so, he was the spark that set ablaze a war in New England. The sachems before him sold much land to the settlers and Philip found himself without the resources to support his people. He strung things along for a while using threats and capitulations to get what he needed from the English, much like today’s small nuclear states do to the Western countries on a global scale. Plymouth officials became too high-handed with Philip and soon events and the resentments of his young warriors pushed the sachem into war.

The action of the war chapters makes them more interesting reading, but they tell an awful tale. The English killed, enslaved or displace half the native population of southern New England. The land they coveted was theirs for the taking, though Plymouth was so indebted after the war, it couldn’t afford the expansion.

The expulsion of Indians made the frontiers more dangerous. Friendly natives had once buffered the settlers from hostile tribes. Now a settler clearing the frontier was likely to be surrounded by hostile tribes and have no hope of help if they decided to purge foreigners.

As the United States expanded, the Pilgrims and King Philip’s War became lost history outside of New England. When they were brought back to popular knowledge, it was as stories transformed to be suitable for new times. Philbrick puts aside the romanticized tale of Thanksgiving not to debunk it, but to present the Pilgrims and Indians more as they were.

Nathanial Philbrick also wrote
Sea of Glory

If you’re interested in this book, you may might like
Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose